Signs of the End of the Christian Church as We Have Known It

• "Since 1960, the number of Americans claiming belief in God went from a 'most emphatic' 97 percent to 71 percent — a 26 point drop."

• "Only 20 percent of the population attend church each weekend."

• "Roughly 44 percent of Americans have left their childhood faith in favor of another denomination or religion or by dropping any religious affiliation at all."

• "By 2010, in a stunning change, America's third largest religious group — and one of its youngest — is 'unaffiliated,' an independently minded group, with no single issue, theology, or view of God"

• "In 2008 a survey of generational views of Scripture found that 86 percent of younger Americans think the Bible, the Quran, and the Book of Mormon 'offer the same spiritual truths' as compared to only 33 percent of adults over 64."

Mapping Where We Are Now
Diana Butler Bass is the author of eight books including A People's History of Christianity, which was one of our choices for The Best Spiritual Books of 2009. In this new and very thought-provoking work, she contends that we are at the end of sea change in religious Christianity which has been going on since the 1970s. Historians have mapped the Three Great Awakenings in American history where old patterns and beliefs were set aside for new forms and vitality. Bass is convinced that the Fourth Great Awakening is underway and as a result there is a great deal of doubt and discontent afoot in the culture and in churches.

Drawing on research and visits with hundreds of Christian communities, she reveals the boredom in business-as-usual congregations and the disillusionment of many clergy caused by the resistance to any changes they initiate. In addition, the culture has soured millions of believers with the toxic developments of the past decade including 9/11, the Catholic sex abuse scandal, Protestant conflict over homosexuality, and the exaggerations of a very vocal Religious Right. Not only mainline churches have dissatisfied members; even the megachurch Willow Creek found recently that their members felt that the church had not met their spiritual needs. Bass then makes her point loud and clear: the "rejection of religion is also hope for the future of faith communities."

With a three trumpet salute, the author challenges readers to acknowledge that there is much work to be done: "to find new paths of meaning, new ways to connect with God and neighbor, to form new communities, and to organize ways of making the world a better place." Bass's vision for the new spiritual awakening in Christianity revolves around relational community (belonging), intentional practice (behaving), and experiential belief (believing).

We were happy to see her emphasize spiritual practice as the catalyst for a new kind of faith that is practical and life enhancing. She makes two points that need to be quoted here:

"Practices weave together a way of life, they shape character, create connections between people, order our choices, and deepen our wisdom about living in the world."

"Practices are more like crafts than programs. They are activities you discern, choose, and learn, actions in which you develop skill and mastery to help you become a different sort of person and deepen your love of God and neighbor."

Welcome to the world of post-religious faith as mapped by Diana Butler Butler. There are many mainline Protestant believers who will be turned on by this soul-stirring defense of spiritual Christianity as they journey into the unknown future. Others, such as Bass's progressive brothers and sisters, may think she has not gone far enough in her vision of the shape and substance of a spirituality for the 21st century. (Our vision of a Progressive Christian Spirituality is here.) But for now, we welcome all the research and conversations that have resulted in this vivid portrait of the problems and the potential of Christianity today.